Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Will the Real "Regional Integrationist" Stand Up?

Rare is the "regional integrationist that will not concede defeat against what I consider the Eurocentric paradigm of the EU being the de facto trend-setter of global regional integration. Even more rare is the one that will openly advocate "the possibility of a UN reform in which regional organisations would be given seats in the Security Council along with states."

What is not strange is who is doing the advocating -- none other than Luk Van Langenhove of the United Nations University Comparative Regional Integration Studies [UNU-CRIS]. It is a delicious irony that the Belgian be based at a research institution on regional integration that is also home to one of the most advanced regions in the West--Flanders.

This ostensible little detail about the regions is important, in my view, because as I read the article linked on the UNU-CRIS website, I could not help but mull over the use of the word regions, especially in the context of EU integration.

Langenhove makes an interesting an important point that:

The EU is the world's most advanced form of supranational regionalism. It has managed to develop a model that incorporates political elements in a deep economic integration, and challenges existing assumptions about governance.

This level of sophistication seems to have a lot to do with the EU's Committee of Regions that has played an important role in cementing this so-called "deep economic integration." One website describes the CoR as:

The Committee of Regions is a new advisory body established by the
Maastricht Treaty, to take into account the views of regional and local
government in European decision making. The advisory Committee of Regions is
a compromise between the aspirations of powerful regions in federally
organised member states (such as Germany, Spain and Belgium), which have
long asked for direct influence on EU decision making, and the views of much
more centralised member states (such as the UK, Denmark and the Netherlands)
whose regional governments have only derived powers from a strong central

A very superficial response to the EU's Committee of Regions was to think how one could be replicated elsewhere, say, in the African Union countries, where a number of countries--say many along the West african sub-region--fall under the ambit of regions. In my own country of Ghana, there are no less than ten regions, with regional ministers and district chief executives of those regions. This all for a country of roughly 22 million!

So, I can most definitely conceive of an AU that has a system like the EU's CoR, where regions are twinned and affiliated in a manner that they act as separate entities within the states they are part of.

But the operative word, today, is "states".

Van Langenhove prefaces his article with some history about states and the Westphalian order. As regards the latter, he maintains:

The Westphalian order that emerged in Europe and now spans the world proved to have a stabilising effect, making it difficult to change borders to create bigger units, especially now that war has largely been abandoned as a means of expanding territory. But some existing states are under pressure to split up as a result of nationalism and calls for cultural autonomy.

The alarm bells that the author gives about the stability of the Westphalian system--and how that is is danger is more relevant, because it means that the system is imperfect and can be modified. But does that mean that regions are the answer to resolving those potential dangers?

The author does not go this way in saying the region is a panacea. Rather, he argues that:

I myself believe that an announcement of the "death of the state" is – to paraphrase Mark Twain – gravely exaggerated. In the foreseeable future, states will remain important centres of governance. But in an attempt to face the challenges of globalisation, states can – on a voluntary basis – turn to world and local regions to complement and even strengthen their power. As such, the world of states would gradually become a world of states and of regions.

Regions as Complementary Roles
So, in fact, regions are complements to the nation state--and not substitutes. World and local regions helping to complement and strengthen the power are important in going this way. Note what Van Langenhove says about the EU:

European integration has been accompanied by "de-federalisation": the emergence of sub-national regional governance. The EU is not just a collection of 27 member states; it is also an association of hundreds of local regions. Regions can be found at all territorial levels. One could organise nice academic debates about what a region actually is, but a more pragmatic approach is just to accept the plurality of the concept and focus on what regions are not. They are not sovereign states!

In my own country of Ghana, the Ashanti region--the second biggest region after the Northern region--is renowned for having called for independence from Ghana many years ago. Belgium's own recent troubles that lasted more than six months when the relatively stronger Flanders region wanted to do what looked like a split from Bruxelles-capitale politicking is a testament of the potential divisiveness of ensuring strong regions within states.

States won't disappear
Thing, though, is that states are not going to go away any time soon--neither will regions. Extrapolate this to the international level, and it seems likely that most regional organisations that we know will not go away any time soon either! Rather, I foresee that they will do the natural thing of evolving and transforming into bigger entities, such as ECOWAS Secretariat into an ECOWAS Commission, and the former OAU into the African Union in 2003--very much modelled on a hybrid between the United Nations and the European Union.

That ASEAN now has a charter, where the EU does not is not necessarily an indication of the sophistication of that ten-member grouping, but rather one of the decision to evolve into a more supra-national entity with what is considered legal personality.

These are certainly big ideas coming from a big article, and a lot more could be said. In the interests of time, I will broach this article at another time, for the ideas have tremendous resonance in the regional integration paradigm. That the EU is to play a greater role in the development of regional integration worldwide is a palatable idea.

It is a shame, therefore, to see it using the Economic Partnership Agreements as a stick to disrupt the regional integration initiatives of the AU countries.

Still, Van Langenhove's point here is not to be sneezed at, and I sincerely believe that it is providing the grounds for a critical and progressive look at regional organisation as well:

The multiple world of regions could be a way to replace the illusion of a single national identity with the more realist view that people hold plural regional identities. As such, the world of regions might not only be a more complex world but also one with more chances of peace and freedom. Europe can help to make this challenging vision real.

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